Friday, August 22, 2008

War of the Worlds (one man show)

"Take a look around you
at the
world we've come to know,
Does it seem to be much more

than a crazy circus show?
But maybe from the madness

something beautiful will grow,

In a brave new world,

With just a handful of men.

We'll start, we'll start all over again..."

Just a handful of men? How about only one man?

No one would have believed in the first years of the 21st century that Jeff Wayne's musical epic "The War of the Worlds" could be performed in under an hour at the Edinburgh Fringe. No one could have dreamed that it could be done by one man. Few men even considered the possibility that Jeff Wayne himself would give permission for such a show. And yet in one of the Niddry Street vaults of the 'Underbelly' venue, a mind immeasurably superior to ours dreamed up an excellent show and slowly but surely he performed this play before us.
I think it would be fair to say that I'm a fan of "War of the Worlds". I love the H.G. Wells book. I used to have a tape of the talking book of it (in the 1980s) which I wore out through over-playing. I love Jeff Wayne's musical version of it. I like the 1953 movie. I have a tape of Orson Welles's 1938 radio show. I loved the recent movie starring Tom Cruise. Basically, I like it. A lot.

So when I saw it was on at the Fringe this year, it was my only 'must see' show. I went to see it yesterday. I wasn't sure I was going to like it - how could one man perform the story? How could one man sing the songs? (was he going to sing the songs or was the tape just going to play them?) Was he going to try and play any of the music? Hang on, there's at least one female role in there, how can one man perform 'Spirit of Man' (a duet between Phil Lynott and Julie Covington on the original musical)? But I went and found out.

The venue ("Underbelly's Baby Belly 1") is one of the Niddry Street Vaults - supposedly one of the most haunted places in Edinburgh. Its basically a stone and brick cavern, wide enough for ten chairs with an aisle up the middle and deep enough for a stage (circa 10 feet deep) and about 20 rows of seats. The vaulted ceiling is quite high up and was covered in sheets for the Fringe. Basically, its an atmospheric place. The audience were ushered in at the start of the allotted time with "The Eve of the War" already playing. About half the seats in the place were filled. But it was a Thursday at 4:20pm, so that's not too bad.

Once we were all sitting in place, Pip Utton ran up the aisle, leaped onto the stage and began performing with some of the most iconic words in English literature "No one would have believed in the last years of the nineteenth century..."

I'm always the same when watching plays. The opening few minutes are always a disappointment to me. I'm like "is that it? Just a man in a waistcoat on stage..." this feeling of slight disappointment came to a head when he got to the (almost as iconic) "The chances of anything coming from Mars are a million to one he said..." - yes, he sung them. But while he hit all the right notes, the man is clearly not a singer. And his timing on some of the words was off slightly. Oh dear.

But then we got into the meat of the story, the cylinder landing on Horsell Common, and the ensuing events, and I was captivated. Next time he sang I realised he was acting in song, not singing. He wasn't aiming to reproduce the vocal performances of the original musical version, he was telling the story and occasionally doing so in song. Thus, his performance of Forever Autumn, while not as musically perfect as the CD was still beautiful and actually more moving than the original. You could feel the loss in the guy's voice: "A gentle rain falls softly on my weary eyes, as if to hide a lonely tear, my life will be forever autumn, 'cause you're not here..." Heartbreaking - in a way that the CD never is.

Of course, to bring the show down to about a 50 minute run time, some of the story and songs had to be abbreviated and one of the songs dropped entirely. Given that this was a one man show it was quite reasonable that 'Spirit of Man' was dropped and the character of Beth, the Parson's wife was lost from the story. That was a shame - as I really like that song - but I guess it had to be done. Thus the performer had only three primary roles to play: The un-named journalist who narrates the story (i.e. Richard Burton in the original recording), the artilleryman (David Essex) and the Parson (Phil Lynott). While performing the character of the artilleryman, he used an accent very similar to David Essex's from the original recording, but also somehow managed to convey a different character through body language. Surprisingly, the Parson was portrayed using a Welsh accent. This worked rather well.

The performance was generally excellent, if I hadn't known every word of the script fairly well I'd only have noticed him fluff his lines once (actually I noticed three deviations from the original words, but two of them would have passed the non geeks by entirely). The only prop on stage was a small 'hill' on the right hand side, but its amazing how much of the atmosphere of the story can be conveyed by a masterful storyteller and some careful use of green, red and white spotlights.

So all in all, I thoroughly enjoyed it. Highly recommended (there's 3 days left, so hurry up). And I'm now - more than ever - inclined to go to the full-scale 30th anniversary tour next year. Tickets on sale in October. If its half as good as the one man show, it'll be great.

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